“Mario’s Story” will screen at the Los Angeles Film Festival as follows:
Friday, June 23, 10:30 a.m. at the Mann Festival (High School Screening) Monday, June 26, 7:00 p.m. at the Landmark Regent (Festival Screening) Wednesday, June 28, 4:30 p.m. at the Italian Cultural Institute (Festival Screening)
In 1998, Mario Rocha, a young Latino from East LA, was convicted of murder and attempted murder on the basis of one questionable identification and not a shred of physical evidence. Only 16-years-old at the time of his arrest, he was tried as an adult and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
“Mario’s Story” unravels like a crime drama in reverse. Produced over a span of seven years, interweaving Mario’s life as an inmate in one of California’s toughest maximum-security prisons with the efforts of an unlikely group of advocates who have come together to win his freedom.
“Mario’s Story” raises serious questions about our criminal justice system as it follows the often discouraging, but determined efforts to win Mario’s freedom. The film is also a hopeful and inspiring story of the unwavering efforts on the part of his family, his community, his attorneys, and the other allies who come together to overturn this injustice.
Thanks to the determination of Sister Janet Harris, the feisty and unstoppable former chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall, his case is taken on in 1999 by a team of pro-bono attorneys at Latham and Watkins. With all of his direct appeals exhausted, the only remaining legal recourse is a habeas corpus petition. It’s a long shot. Less than 1% of the approximately 30,000 habeas petitions filed each year are granted.
Given unprecedented access to film inside Calipatria State Prison in Imperial County, California, a short distance from the U.S.-Mexico border, “Mario’s Story” provides a rare “behind-the-scenes” look at the efforts of the legal team as they pursue a new trial for Mario.
“Mario’s Story” will have its World Premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. The film is directed by Jeff Werner and Susan Koch. The producer is Susan Koch. The editor is Jeff Werner.
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Q & A With Jeff Werner & Susan Koch
Q: In your own words, what is “Mario’s Story”?
Susan Koch: “Mario’s Story” on one hand is about Mario, a young Latino who at the age of 16 is arrested, tried as an adult, convicted, and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. On the other hand, it is a story of an unlikely group of people who have come together to try to win his freedom. They are united in their belief that Mario did not receive the fair trial guaranteed him by our Constitution. These are folks who would likely have not crossed paths had it not been for their involvement in Mario’s case. They all realized it’s an uphill battle that they may never win, but that didn’t deter them. The glue is Mario, who throughout his 11 years of incarceration shows a strength of character and deep faith that inspires and motivates everyone involved in his case. After every setback, they regroup and try again, knowing their chances of success are slim at best.
Jeff Werner: When Susan and I became involved in this project, I expected to be making an uplifting film about an exceptional and brave young man and a group of disparate Americans fighting an injustice on his behalf. Owing to the weakness of the case against Mario, and Latham and Watkins' involvement, I naively anticipated that the fight would be quite easily won. But as the seven years went by and I witnessed obstacle after obstacle being thrown in the lawyers way, I saw “Mario's Story” more as a film about loss: loss of youth and loss of justice. I saw a Kafka-esque story on how the judicial system will zealously protect any conviction regardless of the evidence.
Q: How did you first hear about Mario? How did you get involved?
SK: I first heard about Mario from Sister Janet. Jeff and I were working on a film about juvenile girls in a boot camp outside of Los Angeles. Sister Janet had been the longtime chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall. She was so determined and passionate when she talked about Mario. She firmly believed in his innocence.
Jeff and I got involved at about the same time that she convinced the Latham and Watkin attorneys to take on Mario’s case. We had no idea we would be following his story for the next seven years.
Q: What was the initial reaction to the making of the film from Mario’s lawyers at Latham and Watkin and Sister Janet?
SK & JW: Sister Janet embraced our interest. She believed that this was a story that needed to be told. Although our film focuses on Mario, there are many other cases like his out there. The lawyers were naturally cautious as their first priority was Mario and the case. Over the years, the level of trust increased.
More and more, we were able to be a “fly on the wall” which is what you want when you are making a documentary. But, this is something that understandably took time. It was asking a lot of the attorneys to allow a film team to follow their every move, especially when the odds of a positive outcome were against them, regardless of how much time and effort they put in to it.
An important aspect of the film is its “behind-the-scenes” portrayal of Mario’s case, and the length this took. Describe the filming process throughout this time.
JW: A key to the filming was Susan’s incredible success at getting us inside Calipatria State Prison. We had unprecedented access to cell blocks, the yard, and long interviews with Mario. While advancing Mario’s case was always their priority, the Latham and Watkins attorneys were very generous with their availability. Since I live in Los Angeles, I was always able to run downtown with a mini-DV camera if something new was breaking. For example, if Ian Graham needed to phone Mario about a development, he’d alert me ahead of time, and I’d be able to get to the law offices in time to document the call. This unusual access enabled us to have a great deal of coverage of the ins and outs of the lawyers activities.
How do you think other people will be able to relate to the film?
JW: I always find this a hard question. I can only say how I relate to it and how I hope others will. I hope people will relate to the humanity in all the players in this story, not just those on Mario’s side, and at the same time find themselves rooting for the underdogs who are fighting a judicial system that affects the lives of every member of the audience.
What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
SK: We hope we’ve given the audience some insight into how our judicial system, arguably the best in the world, can sometimes fall short and why it’s so important we have checks and balances. We also hope people will be moved by the dedication and determination of the people involved with Mario who came together because they believe everyone should have the right to equal justice, regardless of their economic background or the color of their skin or the clothes they wear.
As you grew closer to Mario and to his story, how difficult was this film to make, especially with not knowing how the outcome would turn out?
JW: Very often when you’re making a documentary, you go through the footage searching for the stories you want to tell. At a certain point on this film, once I had started editing, I realized that the story was continuing to unfold, which dictated the shape of the film. Also, as we became closer to Mario and his family, we started taking the same rollercoaster ride they were on. Each development was followed by a flurry of phone calls and emails, and very often, disappointments. It would always hit me that in our own lives, when someone postpones a meeting or an appointment, it’s a frustration. For Mario, every delay, every setback was another week, month, year without freedom. At the point when Mario was denied by the Superior Court, we thought we’d make that the ending of our film. We had been following the case for six years and, although a heartbreaking one, it was an ending. Then a few months later, all bets were off when there were new developments in the case we began filming again with renewed fear and hope. “Mario’s Story” was dictating to us. Since there are many Marios out there, Mario and his story made it hard to stay objective, but we did our very best.
SK: The longer we worked on the story, the more we continued to be surprised at how difficult it is to overturn a guilty verdict. After Mario was denied a new trial after his evidentiary hearing, all of us (including his attorneys) assumed it would be years before there might be a break in his case. It was devastating for everyone involved. Getting to know Mario, and spending a great deal of time with him inside Calipatria State Prison, and knowing what he was up against every day, was very tough. For me, the hardest part was when we’d leave the prison, and as you hear all the gates lock behind you, there is this overwhelming sense of what it means to be free, to be on the outside. I realized that Mario might not ever experience that again. Mario was 16 when he was locked up, he was just a kid, and now he’s 27. This would very likely be the reality for the rest of his life.
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About the Filmmakers
Jeff Werner (Director / Editor)
Jeff Werner is an award-winning director and editor of documentaries, feature films and motion picture advertising. Werner is presently editing the feature length documentary “Second Chance Season.”
Prior to that, he edited “The Year of the Yao,” which premiered at The Toronto Film Festival and was distributed by Fine Line.
His editorial work on the PBS feature length documentary “The Smith Family” won him recognition from The Directors’ Guild and The Peabody Award in 2003. The film tells the story of one Mormon woman’s courage and strength while facing her husband’s battle with AIDS.
Werner co-directed and edited the feature length documentary “Camp Scott Lock-Up.” The film aired as a movie-of-the-week on MTV in May 2001. It was also an official entry at the Seattle and Doubletake Film Festivals. Variety called it, “valuable, thought provoking and highly emotional.”
Also in 2001, Werner edited the feature length documentary, “Go Tigers!” nominated for a Spirit Award and an official entry at the Sundance Film Festival. It was released in theatres in the Fall of 2001 by IFC.
Werner edited Lionsgate’s release of “Beyond The Mat,” following the private lives of professional wrestlers, which was nominated by the Directors Guild of America for Best Documentary.
His editorial work on “The Mirror Has Two Faces” marked his sixth collaboration with Barbra Streisand with projects dating back to “A Star is Born,” “Nuts,” and “Yentl.”
Werner has also directed two documentaries for HBO: “The Godfather Family,” a history of all three “Godfather” films and “Bloodlines,” which was nominated for a Cable Ace Award. ”City At Peace,” a feature length documentary dealing with racism in Washington, D.C. was edited by Werner, and aired on HBO in 1998. It was the Grand Prize Winner of the Heartland Film Festival. Currently, MTV/Paramount has optioned the movie rights.
Werner also directed the Warner Bros.’ “Die Laughing.” He is also the winner of several Hollywood Key Art Awards for his work in motion picture advertising.
A former elementary school teacher, Werner received his MA in Education from City College of New York. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Elyce and has two children, Juliet and Bobby.
Susan Koch (Director / Producer)
EMMY and Peabody award-winning filmmaker Susan Koch directs and produces documentaries and non-fiction programming for worldwide distribution and television broadcast. Her critically acclaimed film, “City at Peace,” premiered at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival in 1998 and was broadcast on HBO. MTV Films/Paramount is developing a feature film based on the documentary, with Koch serving as producer.
Koch’s work has appeared on ABC, NBC, HBO, PBS, MTV, The Discovery Channel, National Geographic, Turner Broadcasting, American Movie Classics, The Learning Channel, and the Travel Channel.
Koch is the co-founder, along with Christopher Koch, of the independent production companies, Koch TV Productions and Cabin Films. Their work has received six EMMY awards, a George Foster Peabody, a Cable ACE, and the Environmental Media Awards.
In September 2002, Koch produced an ABC News/Nightline special “Remembering A Family” on her four family members that were killed on the flight that crashed into the Pentagon. The program focused on what family and friends are doing to honor their lives through their work with women, children, and peace issues.
Koch directed and wrote the EMMY award-winning television special, “Barbra Streisand Presents: Reel Models First Women of Film.” This marked Koch’s second collaboration with Barbra Streisand and Cis Corman, President of Barwood Films, serving as Executive Producers. It received a 2001 EMMY and the Gracie Allen Award from the American Association of Women in Radio and Television.
Koch co-directed and produced a documentary movie-of-the-week for MTV, “Camp Scott Lock-Up.” For over a year, Koch was given unprecedented access to a court-ordered “boot camp” for teenage girls.
The Kochs also produced the Peabody winning documentary, “Normandy: The Great Crusade,” distributed throughout the world and on the Discovery Channel in the United States. They also created and produced for five years the award-winning series, “Invention,” in association with the Smithsonian Institution and broadcast on the Discovery Channel. For several years, it was Discovery Channel’s highest rated original series.
Prior to forming her own company, Koch was a producer at NBC News and WETA-TV, the public television station in Washington, D.C., working on a wide variety of documentary films, news programs, live concerts, and political events.
In keeping with her strong, personal commitment to women and children’s issues, Koch has produced, written, and directed videos and films for the National Center to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, Childhelp USA, Planned Parenthood, The Grady Memorial Hospital Teen Pregnancy Project, the Barker Foundation Adoption Agency, Public Counsel, the Los Angeles Conservation Corps, and a national Service-Learning educational initiative. Koch directed and created a music video to launch Washington D.C.’s teen pregnancy campaign.
Koch has a BA with honors from Bryn Mawr College. She is on the board of the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children and is a founding board member of Our Voices Together, a non-profit organization founded by 9/11 families to help create a more just, compassionate world through supporting international development projects.